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Miss Millie’s legacy lives on

A long-time local educator with an abiding passion for music and a gift for inspiring and encouraging her many students over the decades has passed away. Millie Zeigler McDonald, known to so many as “Miss Millie” and “Mimi,” died April 23, after entering hospice care in Birmingham. She was 84.

While she was born in Columbus, Miss., her family’s roots went deep in Lowndes County, where she lived from her toddler years onwards, later moving to Greenville and then Birmingham in her final years.

Laura Conway McCann, a long-time friend and former student, remembers first meeting McDonald as a child.

“I was nine years old and wanted to learn how to play the piano, so Mama signed me up for lessons,” McCann recalled. “Millie lived in a beautiful antebellum home with her mother and three daughters. Her mama, Bubba, was the epitome of a true southern belle, and it was easy to see where Millie acquired her gracious dignity and gentle attributes. Millie was beautiful and more flamboyant than anyone I had ever encountered — this little girl was in awe of her.”

Awe-inspiring was how many people whose lives she touched saw McDonald, who managed over the course of her teaching career to instruct students at five different public and private schools in two counties — Lowndes County High, Greenville High, Greenville Middle School, Greenville Academy and Fort Dale Academy — along with numerous private piano and voice students from across Butler, Crenshaw and Lowndes counties.

“I don’t even know how to put into words who this woman was — but she was a beacon of excellence in our little high school,” Stacey Edwards, McDonald’s voice student from 7th grade, and later, a colleague of the veteran music educator at Edwards’ alma mater, Greenville High, said. “She had worked with the best and she knew her craft. She also knew how to teach her craft to a bunch of foolish and loud teenagers who would never have had all the opportunities to perform without her. She taught me how to breathe correctly and sing with power — how to nurture and take care of my gift of a voice. And she taught me how to entertain and to sell it — even when it wasn’t cool to your classmates. Those were the lessons I learned as a kid from Miss Millie.”

Joseph Longmire, another former music student, said McDonald “was one of the best teachers I ever had,” and the lessons she taught went beyond the mechanics of the keyboard or voice training.

Longmire remembers an educator who taught him to seize opportunities that would help him keep expanding his horizons.

“Miss Millie knew I was destined for something great — she would always tell me to keep God first and to use the talents He had given me to reach out to others,” he said. “Her compassion, love and kindness will be remembered, and I will always hold the things she taught me close to my heart.”

Edwards, a former GHS art teacher, who now has her own art studio in Downtown Greenville, says the lessons she learned from McDonald as an adult were the most important ones gleaned from this “beacon of excellence.”

“Teachers in the arts never truly stop,” she said. “They simply have to share what they have learned through all those experiences, through the struggles you have to go through as an artist — after my thyroid surgery a year had passed and I was still without a singing voice. Miss Millie started my voice lessons back up and worked my voice back into shape. And I am singing today because Miss Millie valued my singing. And she was always so proud of her kids.”

McCann, who later took voice lessons for several years with McDonald, can testify to the pride and affection the teacher had for her students.

“When my children showed the first spark of musical interest, they took piano lessons from Millie and like me, graduated to vocals . . . the best part of it all was the special bond my children also developed with Mimi,” McCann recalled. “She referred to us as her ‘babies’ and even introduced us that way. She loved us and exposed us to far more than music, opening doors for us that would never have been opened otherwise.”

Another one of McDonald’s “babies” is Connor Murphy-White, a professional singer and vocal coach currently working with the Missoula Children’s Theater. The GHS graduate first started studying piano with McDonald in the first grade, with voice lessons coming in the fifth grade. Murphy-White continued her studies with McDonald through her high school days.

“Under her tutelage, I sang with the National Middle School and High School Choirs three times. She was right along beside me when I auditioned for Dr. Meg Jackson at Troy University when I was still a high school junior,” Murphy-White said. “Miss Millie taught me more than just voice and piano; she taught me the nuances of the stage. She taught me which foot to step in on, how to find the best light, how to fill the stage and the importance of stage presence. And I still use all these techniques professionally today. But more than that, she modeled the importance of giving back to future students — and the meaningful impact a teacher has in a student’s life.”

McDonald’s legacy continues through her many students who have gone on to sing in church choirs, perform in community theater and even pursue professional careers in music as educators and performers.

“Miss Millie was an extraordinary individual who impacted so many lives, both young and old. I will always love her and thank her for helping mold my life,” Longmire said.

McCann remembers her teacher and friend as “the gatekeeper, who turned the key and allowed the music to escape, to us and from us.”

“If I can be even a shadow of the generous, fun-loving, exceptional woman that she was, I will consider myself accomplished, and blessed to have been one of her babies,” she concluded. “The world is a better place because Millie McDonald lived in it.”